On more than one occasion on these merry pages, I have expressed my antipathy to historical fiction. Whereas each of our tales necessarily contains some, or much, of our own personal histories, that of our families, nations, and faiths, the focus is not upon the history but upon our personal perspective, how we have absorbed the learning, love, and disappointment of our forefathers and converted all these ingredients into higher art. Literature is then subjective and personal, but is saved from the morass of relativism by an overarching moral structure applicable to all, a skywalk from one atoll of clouds to another. Historical fiction, on the other hand, can be broadly (but justly) categorized as an attempt to strengthen imagery, tragedy, or relevancy by appealing to fact, or what is generally perceived as fact. Here the death of a real historical figure is infinitely more tragic than the death of a poor, unknown person who might have had a braver soul, a sharper mind, and a more loving heart but faded, as most do, into fameless death. A princess with no suitors! An emperor with new clothes! Yet the minds to whom such flimsy apparatuses appeal usually cannot write anything without leaning upon the nearest gallery of battles, barons, and bamboozling taught in school as unconditionally admirable. Over time, the wiser mind assumes control of the curriculum and starts to imagine a world where avaricious mass murderers who happened to run a country are replaced by quiet, introspective souls who would not hurt a fly and always err on the side of the greater good. It is these magicians of word and song that fill the annals of literature, the history books of the human soul. And so, when faced with a tale about a young magician in love with an Austrian princess, as in this film, we are inclined to hope for an ending based only on fiction itself.
The youth in question is Eduard Eisenheim, and the eternal beauty he seeks is Sophie, whom he meets as a teenager in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the early twentieth century. They are the prototypes of forbidden love, his station in life being a son of a cabinetmaker; hers daughter of a prince. Eduard is an outsider not only because he is a Jew; he also lacks the same common sense and common fears that make others so common. First and foremost, he loves magic, the rush of mastering something that your contemporaries cannot explain, a mysterious gift that is in essence a pound cake of diligence and persistence sprinkled with the crumbs of showmanship. Before their inevitable separation, he gives Sophie her inevitable token of his memory: a marquetry locket that produces, upon manipulation, his image. Their last encounter has them hiding in a cabinet that Eduard had promised could whisk them away magically, which of course it doesn’t. But Eduard is still young, very young as it were, and can afford to consecrate the next fifteen-odd years abroad to an apprenticeship in the magical arts, which of course he does. And when he returns is when our story begins.
Eduard has become simply Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton). His smug bitterness (evident in his indifference to everything except his craft) cannot completely mask a certain glee in his own success. For nights on end, his show is the most enticing in all of Vienna, and royalty and paupers alike are in attendance and awe. One fateful night, the night we are all expecting, Sophie (Jessica Biel) appears among the crowd. She has become the betrothed of the Crown Prince of Austria (Rufus Sewell), who exemplifies what we have come to understand of the nobility: ignorance, boorishness, impudence, and more than a tendency towards cruelty. That Eisenheim and the Prince must clash over Sophie, and that Eisenheim must gain some redemption against the societal divide that is, it should be said, much more than a societal divide, lead us to consider the options of plot. The short story (in this collection) on which the film is based has nothing of this love affair; it is Borgesian in tone and content, and features a momentous competition between two magicians, both of whom (in the master trick) turn out to be Eisenheim. The addition of the period melodrama might have been fatal were it not for strong turns by each of the aforementioned actors and the mollifying presence of Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Uhl is the narrator, you see, as well as the alleged impartial observer entranced by both the legerdemain of Eisenheim and the implied benefits of loyalty to the Prince. We endure trick after trick with no small amount of enjoyment, and so does Uhl. Unlike the other three main characters, each of whom embodies some force in its purest form – the Prince is Tyranny, Sophie Innocent Love, and Eisenheim Creative Genius – Uhl is less abstract and more skeptical, less vengeful, less involved in the proceedings. But in the end he chooses wisely, as we suspected he might. And that doesn’t matter, because few things in life, even an orange tree, are sweeter than justified redemption.